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Prison officers 'overwhelmingly' reject improved pay deal

Prison officers have rejected an improved pay deal in a fresh blow to the Government as it attempts to tackle the jails safety crisis.

Earlier this month union leaders endorsed the package, which included a reduction in the retirement age of up to three years for guards.

But the Prison Officers Association said on Thursday that its membership had "overwhelmingly" rejected the offer.

The POA urged the Government to return to the negotiating table to address members' concerns.

General secretary Steve Gillan said: "In the ballot return 65.7% of our members rejected their offer, with 33.7% in favour along with 0.6% spoilt votes. I urge Government not to ignore the views of our members."

The development is a new headache for Justice Secretary Liz Truss during a turbulent period for the prisons estate.

The Ministry of Justice expressed disappointment that the proposals had not been accepted.

A spokeswoman said: " Progress has been made on health and safety grounds and we will continue to hold talks with the POA.

"The Justice Secretary intends to meet with the leadership in the new year. As the Justice Secretary has made clear, she has huge respect for prison officers and is committed to making prisons places of safety and reform."

Under the proposals, prison officers were to be allowed to retire at 65 - three years ahead of the current state pension age, at no cost to them and with full pension benefits.

Uniformed staff were to receive consolidated pay rises of between 0.5% and 1% for each of the next three years, on top of usual performance-related pay increases.

They also stood to receive a "recognition and retention" package totalling £1,000.

Details of the offer emerged after thousands of staff walked out in protest over health and safety concerns amid claims the system was in "meltdown".

Concerns over the state of jails in England and Wales have been mounting for months and intensified last week when a riot erupted at HMP Birmingham.

It was the third serious disturbance in less than two months and raised fears of further disruption.

Ms Truss has announced a wide-ranging package of reforms to address the issues, including a recruitment drive to add 2,500 staff and mandatory drug testing across the estate.

Earlier two former home secretaries and an ex-deputy prime minister called for the number of prisoners in England and Wales to be cut by almost a half.

Ken Clarke, Jacqui Smith and Nick Clegg urged the Government to curb the "escalating prison population" in a letter published in The Times.

But Lord Howard, another former home secretary, stood by his mantra that "prison works".

"In parallel with the rise in the prison population since I was home secretary, we have seen a completely unprecedented and consistent fall in crime," he told BBC Radio 4's World At One.

"If the prison population was halved - as is suggested by Nick Clegg and his colleagues - that would pose significant risks to the community, we would see a reversal of that fall in crime which we have experienced for over two decades."

But he added: "There may well be people in prison at the moment who could be released without causing any significant risk to the public. I'm not saying that everyone who is in prison now needs to be there."

The MoJ said the prison population has remained "relatively stable" since 2010.

A spokeswoman added: " The Justice Secretary has been clear that she wants to see more early intervention and a reduction in reoffending."

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